Packt (pronounced Packed) is a publisher that tries to occupy a niche slightly below the more mainstream IT book. It publishes books quickly and cheaply so even though you are not reading on nice glossy paper, with a comforting new-book smell, you can be reassured that its content is bang up to date. Of course what is on the fringes can quickly move to the mainstream, so for instance while Packt were early publishers on a strange antipodean piece of software called Moodle, the open source VLE is now popular enough to warrant books by the prestigious O’Reilly Press. Could Mahara be the next-big-thing in e-learning? In, Mahara 1.2 ePortfolios: Beginner's Guide by Kent et al (2010), have Packt spotted another educational tool about to make its way into the mainstream?
What will this book tell you? If you are like me, you may want to know what an ePortfolio is rather than what it does and how it does it. What I was looking for in this book was not really a manual as such, but rather some insight into what Mahara ePortfolios are and why I should use one. In this I was a bit disappointed as much of this book is indeed mostly a manual, albeit one aimed at practitioners. Personally I would rather open the excellent Mahara user guide wiki in a browser, while I have Mahara itself open in another tab, in order to learn how to use the software. However, if you enjoy reading from the printed page then this book covers most of what you need to know.
Another thing that I had hoped to find in the book was concrete examples of how Mahara is being being pressed into service by educators. The book does have “case studies” that run alongside the instructional part, and are referred to as new features are introduced in the text. These examples are fictitious scenarios however, so you may still be left without a feel for the genuine application of Mahara.
What is a Mahara ePortfolio? In some respects Mahara is a good solution looking for a problem. It is a well featured open source content management and social networking tool. As an individual you can use it to store, organise, and share digital content. As a group you can use it to collaborate, share and socialise. So far so good but what specifically does it have to offer education? According to the authors Mahara is “a platform for personalised, reflective and collaborative learning” (Kent et al, 2010: 16) (which happily covers all my favourite pedagogical buzzwords). Each of these three themes is expanded upon in the introductory chapter. Interestingly, under the heading Collaborative Learning, mention is made of the advantage of the integration of Moodle and Mahara. To be pedantic these system do not really inter-operate (as of Moodle 1.9), beyond being able to share a common username/password, but an interesting demarcation is made in the book here between the role of the VLE and that of the ePortfolio. According to the authors, Moodle is for formal (i.e. summative) assessment, unlike Mahara which “deliberately doesn’t provide that functionality. Mahara, is a place for informal learning. Mahara is not a course management system” (Kent et al, 2010" 18). Of course a problem with informal and non-assessed learning, is that from the student view (and they tend see with great clarity in this respect), if it’s not assessed it doesn’t exist. So, despite a great fuss that is sometimes made about its importance, non-accredited learning is in many practical respects the poor cousin of summative assessment. It follows that ePortfolios will probably rank below VLEs in your e-learning ecosystem. For example if you want to allocate some marks for a reflective journal then you are probably better off using a VLE, which is designed to create graded records of assessment. As a general rule of thumb most educators will be asking themselves what Mahara provides that their VLE does not. And even in cases where Mahara provides functionality that is superior to that found in the VLE, it may still make sense to stick with the latter system to avoid the inevitable overhead of trying to use both. In short I would need a very good reason to use Mahara in addition to my institutional VLE (Moodle).
There is one thing that Mahara does well that VLEs generally don’t do so well. Mahara allows you to create something that lives on out the Big Bad Web, and not merely behind the authenticated walled-garden of the VLE. Mahara could be very useful for giving students a platform to easily build websites that are publicly accessible. Mahara uses the concept of Views to make clear how anything you do within Mahara may be accessed. A student may for example create a Mahara View that is private, such as a journal for personal reflection, or a View that is public to the whole world such as a website for a class project. Or a View may be private to the class and the teacher. This spectrum of access is a powerful feature.
Mahara might be a good way for lecturers to share their teaching notes and resources publicly (if they so wished). Of course if you want to share resources only with a class, then it’s a VLE you want. And of course one of the main ideas behind Mahara is that students can, in theory, use it to build an archive of their coursework that spans a whole programme of study (though given the increasingly rapid rate of decay of digital content and associated media this idea may be problematic in practice). Basically it is helpful to think of Mahara as a general multi-purpose content management system that can be used to share (and generate) information.
One of the problems that Mahara will face in its uptake is the crowded space of similar systems it inhabits, and particularly ones that are hosted on the web and that are very easy to use. Several “free” systems exist in the cloud that provide services that could be used to realise reflective or collaborative formulations of learning: Blogger.com is excellent for blogging, Ning for social networking, and Google Docs or PBWiki are good platforms for writing collaboratively, as is etherpad, for which see primarypad.com; for study groups students could hitherto consider an Elluminate vRoom (although with The Borg on the march into the live classroom space tinychat might be a better bet); and this list goes on.
This book is a reasonable introduction to Mahara ePortfolios. It got me thinking about which tools are appropriate for different tasks and where might be the best place to invest my time and energy.
Dublin City University
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher who asked me to review it.
Kent, D., Bradbury, G., Kent, M. & Hand, R. 2010, Mahara 1.2 E-Portfolios: A Beginner's Guide, Packt Publishing, Birmingham.